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Last minute Interior change on mine affects Zuni tribe

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Zuni tribe, or the Ashiwa as they call themselves, withstood the test of time and are one of the few tribes to live as ancient ancestors did in the adobe pueblo in the New Mexico desert that bears their name.

Oct. 24 the Department of the Interior decided not to sign a mining permit to the Salt River Project (SRP), a large Arizona utility with plans to mine 80 million tons of coal on 18,000 acres in the vicinity of the Zuni Reservation.

Published reports state fierce opposition from the Zuni tribe and the local environmental community contributed to Interior's change of heart. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb reportedly attended an Oct. 14 meeting between the BIA and the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM supported the mine permit while the BIA previously stated it would intervene on behalf of Zuni. Details are sketchy on what actually transpired in the meeting, though many sources say McCaleb advocated Zuni's position.

The proposed Fence Lake Mine, on a combination of public lands in New Mexico, was part of a power scheme designed to provide fuel for power generators in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

The permit application had been on the back burner for several years and local environmentalists charge that the Bush administration was trying to take advantage of the current power crisis and Sept. 11 events to further its own agenda.

The Zuni expressed fears the proposed mine would impact several of its sacred sites, including some ancient burial areas and impact the environment and fragile ecosystem of the Zuni Salt Lake which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional

Cultural Property.

The Zunis claim that Interior has been receiving SRP royalties from the lease agreement, tainting the Environmental Impact Statement on the area, which the tribe regards as "inadequate and incomplete."

"This fact underscores Zuni's position that an objective decision has not been met and the EIS process has been flawed," Zuni Gov. Malcolm B. Bowekaty said.

Southwestern Sierra Club activist Andy Bessler said the mine basically would dry up the Zuni Salt Lake from its impact on local groundwater. The lake is just 11 miles from the mining operation and groundwater diversions alone would contribute directly to the lake_s decline.

"You can't mitigate these effects. This is really not the place for this kind of mine," he said.

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Bessler also questioned legality of the move since he said the tribe has documented its historic and cultural sites within the mine zone and these areas are protected under federal law.

The federal law dictates that Interior must consult tribes in "good faith" when a cultural area, particularly a Traditional Cultural Property is going to be affected.

Zuni Councilman Dan Simplicio said part of the problem is that the federal law is ambiguous. He said no one is quite sure what its limits law are, adding the notion of "good faith negotiations" is open-ended and vague enough to be taken advantage of by an administration more friendly to environmentally extractive business interests than to American Indian tribes.

Simplicio said the problem with SRP primarily is two-fold and needs to be divided and approached as such. The first problem deals with hydrology and the environment and the second with specific Zuni cultural resources.

In addition to affecting the environment of the lake, Simplicio said the remains of approximately 500 individuals are located directly in the mining zone. He said he finds the idea of digging up the remains and going through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) somewhat ironic.

"It's really strange. Here you have NAGPRA, who is supposed to be putting itself out of business by getting all the remains back to the tribes and here we might have a federal mandate to dig up more bones. We're going to have to go through miles of red tape to get something back that's where it's supposed to be now."

One day after the BIA and BLM meeting the Interior Department proposed new guidelines sought to roll back Clinton-era rules, including one that stripped protections for communities which would suffer long-term negative effects from nearby mining operations.

It is unclear if these rules will affect the Zuni situation and two days of requests for interviews with several people at Interior were unsuccessful. Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale Norton who previously answered questions on the issue for the Albuquerque New Mexican, said he would have to find the right person to address the issue and quickly hung up. The right person never called back.

Earlier Pfeifle told the New Mexican the reasons for that Oct. 24 meeting "is to continue the dialogue between the department, the Zuni tribe and the utility company."

Both Simplicio and Bessler said they fear Interior will wait for the right moment to sign the permit, adding they are vigilantly monitoring the situation.

They said they are unaware of how the new mining rules might affect their cause. Simplicio says the fight is probably far from over.

"Both sides are going to re-strategize, but for us it's a matter of cultural survival so we'll be watching to see what happens next."